Friday, November 22, 2013

App of the Week - TripIt


Keeping track of your travel plans can be a bit of a challenge. While I was at HP I used to travel to Europe at least twice a week and it was always hard having all the right flight, hotel and car rental information with me and to hand, especially as I'm not a paper person. I wish I'd had this app back in those days!

The way Tripit works is that it keeps all your trip information in one place (in the Cloud) and also maintains a copy of your phone so it's there, even if you don't have an internet connection. Nothing special so far. BUT, what makes it so very cool is that you very rarely have to manually type in any of your travel itinerary. All you do is forward your travel or booking confirmation email to Tripit and they post it to your upcoming trip. Plus they'll upload other useful information such as a map of how to find the hotel. How cool is that?

Let me show you an example. My daughter Ally (our Office Manager) is coming over to see us in the UK for Christmas. She recently turned 18 so we're taking her on short 3-day trip to Europe as her birthday present. Normally a trip like this would be private, but here's a link to our travel itinerary so you can get a feel for what TripIt can do (now I've shared this there's no escaping you all right!).

So to summarize, if you have an upcoming trip involving flights, car rental etc, create an account at Tripit and then send your confirmations to plans@tripit.com and away you go. Oh, and don't forget to download the TripIt app for your trusty smartphone. Bon Voyage!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

iPhone vs Android - Navigation (Part 6)

It doesn't seem that long ago that I paid over $500 for a TomTom GPS. Now it seems that there are so many to choose from, including the Rand McNally 7720 RV GPS which we have on special right now. But what are some of the main differences, and how do the dedicated units compare to navigating with your phone? And in particular, are there any differences in navigating with an iPhone vs an Android? We're going to take a look and see if we can answer some of those questions.

Dedicated GPS Units

The first and biggest difference is that these units are dedicated, so they tend to do one thing (i.e. navigate) very well. They don't ring, pop-up with things to download, receive text messages or play music, which is a good thing. The second big advantage is that they contain all of the map data pre-loaded onto the device which means that they work in the middle of nowhere where there is no cell phone signal. A phone still knows where it is because of its GPS chip, but if it can't get a signal it can't download the map data from the server so all you see is a blank screen (there are some exceptions here which we'll talk about later).

The three most popular units for RV'ers are the Rand McNally 7720, the Garmin RV 760LMT and the Magellan RoadMate. These units are designed specifically for the RV. Some of their unique features include being able to enter the height, weight and width of your RV (to avoid low bridges, weight restrictions etc), RV specific points of interest (such as campgrounds, national parks, gas stations etc) and route planning capabilities. We prefer the Rand McNally out of these dedicated units, but these are all good units with slightly different individual features. One thing to look out for is the map updates and make sure that your device has them included. Most offer "Lifetime Maps" although what that means varies. Rand McNally and Magellan define Lifetime as for the [useful] life of that device or until they no longer receiver relevant map data", whereas Magellan limits it to 3-years (then that's 3-years maps Magellan, not lifetime in my humble opinion).

Interestingly, a number of these "dedicated" manufacturers have now released versions of their software for smartphones. These include Rand McNally for iPad, Garmin Street Pilot,  Magellan RoadMate (iPhone only), and TomTom. They differ from "traditional" smartphone navigation apps in that they download all the map data to the phone and so don't require a cell phone signal to navigate. However, none of them are RV specific (to my knowledge) and they tend to be relatively expensive for an app ($40 - $100).

SmartPhone Navigation

There are really three components to this, so lets look at them in turn.

Device

The first thing to think about is the device itself. Because it's a phone and not a dedicated GPS, it has some limitations. Things to think about are:

  1. How large is the screen (I like my Droid MAX HD as it has a very large screen)?
  2. How easy is it to see in sunlight (generally I find phones pretty good)
  3. How are you going to mount it in the car (I use a TireTraker Window Mount which works great with my Motorola MAX HD and iPhone)?
  4. Do you have a car charger because otherwise it will run out of battery?
  5. What are you going to do when you get a call while navigating?
  6. If you're going to use an iPad, does it have in-built GPS (not all of them do)

Navigation Apps

If you type navigation into your iPhone's app store you get 2201 results! Suffice to say that there's a lot of choice of nav-apps on your phone. Some are excellent, and some are rubbish. Some of the tops apps to look at are Waze (excellent integrated traffic and buddy functions), MapQuest, GPS-Drive (great value at $0.99), Co-Pilot Live (does have a basic RV version but requires the Premium version), and TeleNAV (makers of the map data, gas price integration).

With the iOS 6, Apple dumped Google in favor of their own navigation app Apple Maps. Personally, I think it's hopeless. I know it's a new product, but most of the times I try to use it, it can't find what I'm looking for. For me (as well as 35% of other iPhone users in a 2012 survey) I prefer Google Maps. In fact, I love Google Maps. There I said. I prefer Google Maps over Apple. I love the voice integration (Siri steadfastly ignores everything I say), the fact that it finds literally everything, and the tight integration with my other apps such as Yelp, Trip Advisor etc.

In December last year, Apple admitted defeat and allowed Google Maps back to the iPhone.  It's generally the same as on the Android although the interface has been re-designed for the iPhone. It also lacks voice-guidance when walking, Wikipedia integration and quite importantly, the ability to download a section of Google Maps for offline use. I used this very effectively when we visited Mexico earlier this year. We flew into Guadalajara and drive to Puerto Vallarta. I knew that finding our hotel was going to be a challenge, but didn't have data as I'm with Verizon (don't get me going on this), so I downloaded the Google Map data for Guadalajara on my Droid before I left. The only downside I found (and it's quite a big one) is that you have to be online to build a route. Once it's built, you can navigate along that route offline. Alternatively, don't be a cheapskate like me and buy a Navigation Map for Mexico such as TomTom's.

Other Apps

There's one thing that I haven't mentioned and it's an important point if you're comparing navigating with a dedicated unit or a Smartphone, and that's the other apps that you have available. This last summer I was traveling the US with Murphy (my border collie cross). He's as smart as mustard, but quite frankly, he's not much of a navigator. So I used my Rand McNally as my main navigation system with it's RV specific routing and points of interest. BUT, I also had my Droid running Google Maps as a "second opinion" mounted in a holder by the side. Normally when I travel with Tracey, I get a second opinion whether I ask for it or not, and I guess after 25 years of marriage I've come to expect it. This way I can quickly compare routes, and look for cheap gas using GasBuddy, look for places to boondock with AllStays and check the weather with TWC. Having said that, I'm looking forward to getting my "real" co-pilot back next year. And she can drive!

Summary

If you do a lot of RV driving, I'd seriously consider a dedicated RV GPS such as the Rand McNally. In addition, I'd recommend having a smartphone with your favorite navigation app, It's great as a second opinion, toad or walking navigation, and gives you access to great features not yet available on the dedicated units. For the phone, my favorite is Google Maps but feel free to experiment and tell us which is your favorite and why.

Above all, if you do use your phone for navigation, please be extremely careful not to get distracted, especially when driving an RV. If possible I would have your co-pilot interact with the phone leaving you to concentrate on getting there safely.


Came across this while researching for my article and had to include it.
What the heck, it made me laugh!


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Gadget of the Week - LED Emergency Triangles



We've been RV'ing for almost 7 years now, but one of the things that I've never thought about is something that could potentially avert disaster, and that's a roadside emergency triangle.

Breaking down is one thing, but breaking down at night in an RV is a whole different matter, and thankfully something I've never had to experience. Normally I try and avoid driving the RV at night, but sometimes it can't be avoided.

As soon as I saw this product it occurred to me just what a huge difference it could make to RV safety. In fact, this is probably the reason why ALL commercial vehicles are required by law to carry 3 emergency triangles (US DOT Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association Regulation 393.95) and the California DMV Recreation Vehicles and Trailers Handbook recommends that all RV's carry emergency triangles.

What makes these Emergency Triangles different is that they have 21 high-visibility LED's which can be either steady or flashing. These LED's extend the visibility of your triangle to more than 2/3 of a mile and are even more effective in bad weather. All the LED triangles can be operated either off 4x AA batteries or via a 19' long 12v power cord.

The DOT recommends three triangles and we carry a set of 3 LED Triangles in a carrying case on our website for $89.95. If budget is tight, then we also carry a single LED Triangle for $34.95. While we're on the subject of safety, you might want to think about a high-viz jacket. I didn't realize it, but in planning to take Ally over to France when she visits us for Christmas, I discovered that since 1st July, 2008, it's law in France that all motorists must carry an emergency triangle and a high-viz jacket in their vehicle.

If you were wondering what to ask Santa for at Christmas, maybe this is just the ticket.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Gadget of the Week - Max Burton Induction Cooktop



TechnoRV has been using the Max Burton Deluxe Induction Cooktop in our RV now for almost 2 years and WE LOVE IT! It was a gift for Tracey's birthday and we've used it everyday, twice a day since. In fact, I can't remember the last time that we used our propane cooker. Since we never use it, the cover stays on and we get loads of extra space in our kitchen.

So what do we like about the induction cooker?

Since 83% of the energy is transmitted directly into the food compared to 30 - 35% for a propane cooker, it's SUPER FAST. At our recent TechnoGeek Learning Rally, Tracey demonstrated the cook top by cooking Curried Parsnip Soup from start to finish in 20 minutes. That efficiency also means that the cooker won't heat up your RV the same as using your propane burner. This can be especially useful on very hot days and puts much less strain on your ac system meaning a cooler rig.

Previously I'd always sworn by propane as I found it much more controllable than electric. However, the induction is EVEN MORE CONTROLLABLE. It reacts super-fast to changes in power level.

The cook top that we recommend is the stainless steel topped deluxe model which is important because previously we had the basic plastic topped model and the plastic cracked. The unit has a 3-hour timer which means that I can set it on low so that I can leave it on while we go out, just like a crock-pot. In fact, we never use our crock-pot now.

Best of all, I get to use the campgrounds power that we've already paid for rather than burning up my propane!

A word of caution though. The induction cooktop doesn't work with all types of pots and pans. They must be ferrous meaning that a magnet will stick to them. In fact, the unit comes with a little test magnet. Generally, cheaper cookware (e.g. from Walmart) will not work. We had a nice range of All-Clad and everything worked. If it has a nice thick heavy bottom, it will probably work. You can also use cast iron pans and skillets on the unit.


If you're not sure, you can always take a look at our Induction Griddle which is specially designed to work with the Max Burton. It is constructed out of lightweight aluminum with an integrated steel disc at the center which distributes the heat evenly over the griddle. It's eco-friendly PFOA-free non-stick surface makes great pancakes, eggs and bacon. Can you smell the bacon frying yet?

TechnoRV Visits the Motorhome and Caravan Show



The Motorhome and Caravan Show is the UK's largest camping show with over 100,000 visitors this year. It was held in the NEC in Birmingham which is the largest exhibition complex in the UK and occupies 19 halls! Luckily they are organized side-by-side so you can easily walk from one hall to the next, as long as your feet will permit it.

As children, both Tracey and I had camped in the UK. A thoroughly miserable experience. My recollections are of wet grass, cow pats and lying on a blow-up bed in a tent watching a river run past me and wondering at what point my bed would up and float away with me on it.

It is perhaps for this reason that caravans and more recently motorhomes are becoming increasingly popular here. The campsites are still quite basic, many are simply farmers fields with no facilities, but there are more and more resort-style locations being built.

Looking back now at the show, one of the things that struck me most was how expensive everything is here compared to the dollar. A 1.6 to 1 exchange rate doesn't help, but I was still shocked. For example, a small Airstream trailer costing $60-70,000 in the US would cost around $117,000 here. Having an A-class in the US (our trusty Dolphin) meant that we were drawn to the A-classes here. I couldn't bring myself to look at an RV called a "Dethleffs", that just seemed to be tempting fate too much. There was a lovely German Concorde Charisma, but at $265,000 with no slides I quickly moved on.

After a much welcome cup of tea ($3.50!) we thought we'd found our ideal RV. It was an Auto-Trail Chieftain. It's a C-class which had a double bed at the back, clever pull-down beds over the cab, a good sized kitchen and a handy British-weather-defeating umbrella built into the door! But still no slides and at 29' long it would be a hand-full on these tiny English roads. Back to the drawing board.







I've always loved the VW Camper vans and we saw a very cool one with lots of extras which was new. In fact, it was one of the last ones in production which probably explained the $54,000 price tag. But style comes at a price right?


Perhaps there was nothing here for us? But then we say it. The Zone Caravan. Retro, customizable and very, very cool. Available in over 240 colors, I could see my daughter Ally's name all over this one ath the exhibition. Resplendent in shocking pink. Pink cushions, a pink couch, a 40" flatscreen TV and teenie frying pans. Teen paradise. Plus you could pull it behind your rig and never have to see the mess!

Slideshow of our Visit


iPhone vs Android - Music (Part 5)

Music is a passion of mine and I've tried about every gadget that came along to bring my music with me. In fact, I even modified my Parka (a popular brand of over-coat back in the 70's, see left) when I was in high school by sewing into the hood a speaker for each ear to be able to listen to the radio on the bus to school. The only problem was that I had to have my hood up to listen to music which got a bit hot in summer! I had to wait almost 10 years until Sony launched the Walkman in 1980. Do you remember the Discman (Sony's portable CD player), and then in 1997 came the first MP3 player. Then everything changed in 2001 when Apple launched the iPod putting 1,000 songs in your pocket. What a concept! I remember being so blown away when I saw my first one. More recently, streaming music services have grown rapidly in popularity. This year revenue from streaming grew by 40% and overtook downloads for the first time (streaming is where you listen to music played from the Cloud over the internet rather than from your phone's memory).

So given all this change, how do Android devices fare against iPhones as a way of listening to your music?

As you've probably suspected, the answers is that depends a lot on what sort of person you are, how you like to consume your music and how technical you are. I have used both and definitely prefer the iPhone as my Motorola MAXX HD would often skip during music playback. Don't know if this is Android or my phone, but it drives me crazy.

Having said that, rather than focus on the features of each device, I decided to focus on you and see if I can come up with some guidelines that might help.

I Like Music, but don't have many CD's and listen mostly to the Radio

This is probably the easiest category and quite frankly, both Androids and iPhones will work very well in this fashion. First of all, you'll need a music streaming app. There are countless to choose from. Some of the most popular are Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, Songza and Slacker. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but in essence you pay a monthly fee and in return get access to millions of songs that you can play as much as you like. Some even let you download them to your device to listen to when you're offline. They are very easy to use and setup. Tell them what you like, what you want to listen to or what you're doing and they'll do the rest. The downside for the RV'er is that many times you don't have WiFi and so streaming will eat up your data plan (streaming for an hour a day for a month will use about 1.8Gb of data).

One other thing to mention since you like the radio is Podcasting. I love podcasts because when we travel it's really hard to find a good radio station and the adverts drive me bonkers. In my opinion, this is where Apple scores very highly. With iTunes (or the Podcast iPhone app) I subscribe to my favorite radio stations (Science Friday, Talk of the Nation, The UK Chris Evans Show) which are then downloaded and saved to my phone. I can then play them back at anytime, without any internet connection through my RV's speaker system or using my Bose SoundLink (if you already have an Android, then apps like Podcast Addict do a similar thing). They really do make the journey go faster!


I Have Lots of CD's but don't Know How to Listen to them on my Phone

If this is you, don't worry, it's quite easy and I know so many people who are in this category (including my Dad!). The advantage of having your music on your phone is two fold. First of all, since you are already backing up your phone (right?), your music will also be backed up automatically. I have known people lose tens of thousands of dollars worth of music CD's through fire or theft.

Secondly, you might want to listen to your music when you don't have a CD player handy (e.g. cocktail hour outside, over at a friends house, or in the car). Finally, once you've loaded them on your device, you can get it to randomly play tracks from your entire collection (great if you're a little indecisive) or set up your favorite playlists of songs. You can even tell it which are your favorite songs and have it play them more frequently.

Another feature I like on iTunes is Genius. This looks at your music collection, what you listen to and then creates a playlist of other songs that you might not listen to much but might like. It's like having your very own DJ!

This is a category where I think the iPhone really shines. Combined with iTunes it makes it extremely easy to get your music off CD's and onto your phone. Once your CD has been converted to audio files (for example MP3), it will then automatically transfer them to your phone when you next sync. There are non-Apple music management tools, but in my experience none of them are as good as iTunes, especially when it comes to syncing with your phone.

Over time, you may want to start buying your new music directly from your phone. On iPhone, this is most easily done through the iTunes Store. On an Android, the Amazon MP3 app is probably your best bet for listening and purchasing, or Google's Play Music for listening.


I have Loads of MP3's on my Computer and Just Want to Listen to them on my Phone

This is easy. If you have a Mac, it's most likely that you'll be using iTunes and so transferring to an iPhone is super-easy and offers the most functionality. You can also look at using Apple's iTunes Match which syncs your entire collection with the Cloud and let's you access your entire collection from your device.

If you're on Windows and possibly don't use iTunes, then in my opinion, the best way to transfer your music is to copy them onto an SD card and to pop the card into an Android phone such as a Samsung Galaxy etc. This has the advantage of not taking up valuable space on your phone, is quick and easy and relies on the apps on your phone to manage your music. The downside is that it doesn't sync back your preferences or music collection to your computer, but in many cases, people don't connect their phones to their computers very often.

Summary

Let me see if I can summarize for you.

  1. If you are new to all this and don't have many CD's or music files, then both an Android or iPhone will work well for you. 
  2. If you have lots of CD's and would like to back them up and listen to them on a phone, I think the iPhone would be easiest for you. 
  3. If you are already into this whole digital music thing and are not on a Mac, then I'd suggest an Android device due to the convenience of having it on an SD card and the flexibility in music players.
Missed the others in the series? Click on the links below:


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

App of the Week - Evernote

I love Evernote. It's one of those apps that once you start using you say to yourself, "What did I do before I had Evernote?" Let me explain. Most of us like to make lists, I know that I do. The problem is, what do you do with those lists, other than lose them or can't find them? Take the example of a shopping list. Imagine being able to create a shopping list on your computer. Then when you go to the shop, it's automatically there for you on your phone. Better still, it's also on your iPad, Google Tablet and your wife's Galaxy.


But it's not just shopping lists. You can save web pages to Evernote, upload documents that you've scanned with Genius scan (remember that from our last newsletter), capture a photo and tasting notes from your latest beer. The list is endless. Each note can be tagged for easy capture, and you can also access your entire note collection online. Best of all, it's free!!


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Use your phone as a scanner with Genius Scan

I must confess that I have been "anti-paper" for almost 20 years now (that's a scary thought) and as such, don't even possess a filing cabinet or paper filing system, because I don't have any paper (except passports etc). Even though I have my trusty Docuscan scanner in the motorhome, that doesn't help me when I'm out-and-about.  You can imagine my delight therefore when I discovered an app that allowed me to use my phone as a scanner.

So many times in the past I'd gone into a spasm when someone gave me a copy of their favorite recipe, or wanted to save a menu from a favorite restaurant or even my beer tasting notes from a favorite brewery. What to do with it? Where to file it?


With Genius Scan, you take a photo of your document. Genius Scan will then crop it, straighten it, adjust for parallax error, enhance it to make the text better and then convert it to a PDF document (this is the standard format for saving and sharing documents, and is available free from Adobe).

Best of all, like many of the apps we review, it's FREE.












Even simple hand-written recipes like this are easily converted.








Genius Scan +


Now, if you like it, I would recommend upgrading to the paid version (Genius Scan +). For $2.99 you get to be able to AirPrint (print to AirPrint-compatible printers), and save to the Cloud (Box, Dropbox, Evernote, Expensify, Google Drive, SkyDrive). Since I'm a big Dropbox user, I can file my documents in my virtual filing cabinet and then access them from any of my devices. Plus of course, they're always backed up.

Should you upgrade to iOS 7?

Just in case you missed it, Apple has released its latest update to the operating system for its iPhones and iPads. In fact, you may have noticed the little red dot or "1" on your Settings tab signifying that there is an update pending. Your phone may have already downloaded the 750MB update - even if you don't update it's sitting there taking up to 3Gb of space on your device (that explains where all the space has gone on Tracey's phone).

So what's to be done? Should you go ahead and just update? If so, what can you expect? Normally it's not a big deal, but this is the largest phone OS release that Apple has rolled out since launching the iPhone and to be honest, the feedback to date hasn't been great. Don't get me wrong, there are some fine new features which we'll cover later, but many people, me included, think it's too "different", has too many unnecessary changes and not enough upsides to overcome the downsides.

The problem of course is that if you're on an iPhone 4S or above, there's no "going back". Once you upgrade you're stuck there.

First Impressions


Despite my better judgement, I upgraded, since I needed to for obvious reasons. My first thought was that, in a fit of jealousy, my iPhone had dressed up as an Android to get me back for my previous unfaithfulness (see Did Apple Copy Android).

However, rather than seamlessly integrate the best of Android into their beautiful OS, it seems as if they've taken a step backwards, and frustrated millions of loyal users in the process.

I'm sure that many of my colleagues will pull my leg and call me a luddite, but I feel strongly that software companies have a responsibility to their users. We've invested a lot of precious time learning the way something works. If they go ahead and change it and make people re-learn stuff they already knew, they get frustrated (just like I did when I tried Windows 8 for the first time, but don't get me going on that). As they say "if it's not broken, don't fix it".

Stepping off my soap-box, let's talk about some of the positive new features first:

Pros

  • There's a new Control Panel which you can access from any screen by swiping upwards. It contains quick access to things like Airplane Mode, WiFi, Bluetooth, the Calculator, Camera and a cool new Flashlight app. It looks like a small child designed it and is hard to read due to the grey on grey color scheme, but hey, it's there.
  • The App Store has been upgraded with new features such as searching for Apps that are relevant to where you are. For example, if you are in Disney, it will bring up Disney related apps.
  • Siri is "less robotic" and can be a dude. Meaningless for me as she never understands a word I'm saying with my British accent (Google is much better here).
  • Self-updating apps. These can be turned on or off in Settings / iTunes and App Store
  • Multi-tasking. Apps can now automatically refresh themselves (i.e. keep running) in the background. Beware however of the impact that this can have on your battery life). The fix is to control which ones can keep running in Settings / General / Background App Refresh
  • Improved security - you now need to enter your password before disabling Find my iPhone and you can force your phone to erase your data after 10 failed passcode attempts (recommended, unless you have grandkids).
  • Notification Center, straight from Android. Swipe down to see all your apps notifications such as email, text messages, to-do's, etc (you can customize what you see here). 

Cons

  • Quick Search (which used to be available by swiping right or double clicking the center button twice) is gone. If you hunt long enough, you'll find it by swiping the screen from the center downwards
  • I find the Camera harder to access from the Lock Screen
  • Some users have reported that the new user interface and animations make them feel "seasick" (if this is the case for you, go to Settings / General / Accessibility / Reduce Motion).
  • Reduced battery life (here's how to increase your battery life)
  • Cheesy low-contrast black-on-grey color scheme (there is an option to boost the contrast). You can invert the colors, but then your icons and home screen look like your iPhone's been doing acid. 
  • Slow. Did I say, Slow, especially if you're on an iPhone4.

Should you Upgrade?

It depends on the sort of person you are and how you use your phone. If you just want to use it to make calls, send text messages and use a few apps, I'd recommend waiting, at least until Apple releases iOS 7.1 or 7.2 and irons out many of these annoyances and bugs.

If you're a seriously heavy user and don't mind a relatively frustrating new learning period, then you should probably upgrade, but first:

  • Make sure you've backed up your phone, either to iCloud or to your computer
  • Make sure you're connected to a good WiFi signal (if your phone hasn't already used up all your megabytes)
  • Delete any unwanted or unused apps
  • Update all the remaining apps to the latest version
  • If you have certain apps that are critical for your business, check that they'll run on iOS 7
  • If you're updating with a computer, update iTunes to the latest version
  • If you're updating without connecting to a computer,  make sure that you have at least 3Gb of storage space. Yes, 3Gb! If you're not sure, you can find it in Settings / General / About

Good luck and stay-tuned to TechnoRV for updates!

Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth Speaker

For those of you who know me, you'll know that I love my music. In fact, if you've ever been at a rally early, you can always find the TechnoRV booth during setup, just follow the music. Up until now, my favorite way to play music was to stream using Pandora, with my iPhone plugged into my BlockRocker. The sound is great, but it's quite big and bulky.

Back in August it was my birthday and everyone was asking what I wanted. I'd seen a friend with a small portable bluetooth speaker called a Jawbone. It looked pretty cool, but when I read the reviews, I came across the Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth Speaker. It got 5 stars out of 316 reviews on Amazon and even though it was a little more expensive, that's what I put on my birthday list!

I Love it!!
When reviewing a new gadget I always try to think of both the positives and the negatives. In the case of the Bose SoundLink, I really can't think of any negatives. I've been using it now almost daily for the last month and absolutely love it. The main reason is the sound quality which is simply amazing. If you shut your eyes it's hard to imagine such good quality sound coming from such a small box. In particular, the richness of the sound is very impressive, with good solid base notes belying its small size.

Bose have made the whole bluetooth pairing pairing process a snap. In the past with my bluetooth headsets connecting to a new device had always been a bit of a hassle. With the Bose, it's a simple press of a button and you're done. For example, if you're at a friends house and want to let them use it, you simply press the bluetooth button and it pops up on their phone. Connect and you're done. I've tested it with my iPhone4, Motorola MAXX HD and Apple PowerBook and they all work faultlessly.

Let me run through some other noteworthy points:

  • Build-Quality is excellent. So often when you buy electronic gadgets they work but feel as if they're going to break any minute. When you pick up the Bose, you know it's a quality product. For a start, it weighs a ton, feels great in your hand and has simple, no fuss controls. The accessories are also well made which is rare nowadays.
  • The rechargeable battery lasts a long time, at least a day of continuous listening.
  • It's loud. This was one of the main criticisms of the Jawbone. It's very rare that I have the Bose on full volume (the only time was when we were partying outside). 
  • The charging dock is simple to use and convenient, just rest the Bose on the dock and it charges.
  • The charger comes with adapters for multiple countries, great if you travel.
  • It's small size makes it portable. In fact, I often have it on the dash of my car (be careful to put it out of sight when leaving).
  • Being wireless makes it very easy and convenient. The bluetooth range is impressive (20 feet) and it's very convenient being able to change the track and volume from your phone without having to go over to the speaker.

I guess my only criticism is the lack of a case. Amazon has a Bose Travel Bag, but at $45 it's pretty steep. I use a Skooba Travel Wrap which we used to sell and I find that works great at less than half the price.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Gadget of the Week - USB WiFi Repeater

Almost all WiFi boosters need to be plugged into a computer and require drivers to be installed, which can be quite troublesome. Not any more. This gizmo requires no drivers and lets multiple computers connect to your booster.

As long as you have one of TechnoRV's Boosters, simply plug it into the Alfa Repeater. That's all the installation that is required.

What the repeater does is take the boosted WiFi signal and then repeat it or re-broadcast it over a new local WiFi, kind of like your own WiFi hotspot.  Each of your devices then connects wirelessly to this new hotspot and can thereby talk to the boosted WiFi signal and hence the internet. It's very cool. You can even give your hotspot signal a name and password protect it to stop those pesky people from trying to use your cool gear.

Here's a diagram (okay, I know it's a house but your RV is a house, right, it just has wheels):


Those devices can be other computers (PCs or Mac's running any operating system), Smartphones, Tablets, Smart TVs, Roku boxes and even stuff that hasn't been invented yet! Plus, you can connect your wireless printer to the hotspot and allow all those devices to print because the WiFi Repeater is also a router meaning that it will connect all of those devices together on your own network. Plus you have the added bonus of no wires, so you can sit outside with your cocktail and iPad while surfing your very own boosted WiFi signal!

The only catch is that you do need to tell the repeater what WiFi signal to 'tune in to.'  You do that by connecting a computer to the repeater (either by ethernet or wirelessly) and then selecting the appropriate signal. Don't worry, it comes with instructions and we also have a Learning Series that comes with it.

If you'd like more info, here's a short YouTube video with Phil talking about the Repeater. I'm using a  RadioLabs version as an example, but everything I say applies equally to the Alfa version.


Saturday, April 27, 2013

App of the Week - GasBuddy

I recently drove from Lakeland, Florida to Goshen, Indiana. On that trip, I saw gas prices vary from $3.89 in Florida to as low as $3.11 in Costco, Charleston, SC. That's a 78c / gallon difference! Just with my little RV, that's $50. So the trick that we all face is to figure out where to fill up and where to just put in the minimum to hobble through.

Enter GasBuddy. GasBuddy uses customer input to compile a US wide database of gas and diesel prices. You simply press the home button and it will display all the nearby prices in a list or on a map. What is also very useful is the ability to enter a city (e.g. your destination) and see if the gas is cheaper or more expensive there. I used this quite effectively just recently to make sure that I arrived in South Carolina empty and made sure I filled up, since IN was a lot more expensive. It works better if you have a larger tank than my piddly 70 gallons, but hey, every penny counts!

There are other gas pricing apps, and like everything, you can read good and bad reviews, but it works great for me (and is rated 5 stars from more than 90,000 reviewers), and I find that generally, most pricing data is less than a day old. Check it out, it's free!

Friday, April 26, 2013

iPhone vs Android - Getting Started (Part 1)


This series of articles is meant to provide you with a perspective on Android Smartphones from the perspective of someone who is very familiar with the iPhone. It is intended to be impartial (as best I can) and does provide some comparison of features, although is not a detailed manual or training class. For that, I would suggest attending the TechnoGeek Learning Rally or becoming a member of the Geeks on Tour to access their training videos. It might prove useful if you are considering a Droid or iPhone, or have just bought a Droid and want some help figuring it out. Good luck! By the way, I do not profess to be an expert on Droids. If I say something that is incorrect or misleading, I apologize. Let me know and I will correct it. Promise.

First Day

My first task on my new adventure was to decide which Droid to purchase. You will recall that the term Droid (short for Android) is actually the operating system that these phones run (like iOS that the iPhones run). It is the software that runs the phone and gives it its "look and feel". Android is developed and owned by Google which explains its close integration into all things Google (more on this later).

My choices were quite simple. It came down to the Motorola Razr Max HD or the Samsung Galaxy 3S. I'm not going to compare the hardware, there are other sites that do a better job on that than I could (e.g. TechCrunch). In summary, I preferred the Razr's larger screen and longer battery life.

First Impressions

I was SO excited when I opened up the box. I loved the sexy sleek black look, BUT, it took me 5 minutes just to figure how to turn it on! Once that major hurdle was overcome, it goes through a very cool boot sequence and I was in. Now what? To be honest with you I was completely lost. Now I know how most of my customers feel when they come to our seminars or onto our booth. Luckily I'd sat through enough of Chris Guld's wonderful Smartphone seminars to know what a few of the buttons do.

Already you can see my dilemma. I was used to the iPhone's single center button. Now I had 4 to worry about!

The Home button is similar to the iPhone's Center button so I started there. It takes you back to the Home Page. The Back button is kind of like an undo. It takes you back through all your mistakes to where you were. I use it a lot. It's your friend.

Applications

Now the Apps button is a bit weird for an iPhone user. It takes you to a whole different parallel universe - one where your apps live. This is going to freak you out. Apps live in this parallel universe and can also appear on your Pages, like your Home Screen. However, they don't have to. The icons on your Pages are like links to your Apps "real" home which is in this Apps parallel universe. If you delete an App off your Page, it still lives in your Apps Universe. To completely get rid of an App you have to go and attack it on its home turf by removing it in the Apps Universe. Whew, pretty unnerving stuff. But wait, it gets weirder. Apps can also be Favorites (at least on the Razr) which means they also have a link on a Favorites Page. Again, remember that they can only really live in one place (the Apps home). This is a useful way of quickly finding your favorite apps.

One of the first things you'll want to do with your new phone is get some cool new apps. Even if they are serious apps, you get them at the Google Play Store. Click on the Play Store app and search for your app. When you install it, it will go and live in your Apps Parallel Universe and make an entry on one of your Pages.

Before I leave apps, there's a new app-like thingy on Droids which is called a Widget. It's like a mini-version of the app and is always running, meaning that it can be a quick way of getting information. Examples include a widget showing a traffic light (green or red) with your home commute time showing based on live traffic conditions, another would be a simple clock, or a window to your favorite pictures. Have a play with them, they are fun and don't exist on the iPhone.

Pages


Pages are like screens, or sheets of paper laid out side by side. You can scroll between them by sliding your finger left or right. As I mentioned, Pages are where you can put links to your Apps or Widgets to give you access to information quickly. To put an App on a Page, use the App Button to go to the App Parallel Universe, and hold down the App. You will then see a small version of your Pages where you can drop your App in the right place. You can then move that App around by holding it down, or remove it (and send it back to its parallel universe) by moving it up to Remove.

Settings

Just like on the iPhone, there's an App called Settings which takes you to the phone's settings. This is where you connect to WiFi, set up a hotspot, manage your sounds etc. On the Razr Maxx you can also get here by swiping left (or is it right?). There's a lot in Settings, so here's some pointers:

  • Avoid the Verizon apps (e.g. Backup Assistant Plus). They are crap and try to charge you money
  • Make sure you visit Security / Screen Lock. You can set Face Recognition (cool, but rubbish - much too slow) or Pattern which is excellent (wish it was on the iPhone)
  • Use Sound to select you notification sounds and ring tones
  • Visit Backup and Reset and check Backup my Data. This backs everything up to your Google account and is a VERY good idea, and is free
  • Setup your Voicemail - this is done through the Verizon Voicemail app or by dialing *86


Ring Tones

Street credibility dictates that you HAVE to have a custom ring tone. Having a 10-year old Nokia with the default ring tone says so many things about you, most of which are not complimentary. There are many places you can get them for free, but I got mine from Zedge. "Bad to the Bone" as a ring tone and the "Star Trek Computer" for my notifications. I admit it, I'm a trekkie. There, I'm outed.

Mute

Imagine my disappointment when after all this set up, I kept missing calls. My phone was a mute. It wouldn't emit a sound. I looked everywhere for the mute button but couldn't find it. After a couple of days I noticed when I turned it on there was a speaker icon on the left. I'd never noticed it before as I was always in a state of trepidation when turing on my phone. The little grey circle was in the left position. By sliding it to the right, my phone regained its full faculties (unlike me).

Now that I could actually hear my phone ringing, I then had the issue of trying to answer a call. Gone are the days of pressing the green button, or "Send" (remember that?). Now you have to slide the thingy all the way to the right to answer. This really bugs me. It's hard to do with one hand and if you get it wrong, my phone takes great delight in hanging up the call.

Summary

I was exhausted after my first day, but had achieved a lot. If you're in the same boat, the only real way is to play, curse, throw a tantrum, play some more, threaten the phone with sudden death and then play some more. OR, attend the next TechnoGeek Learning Rally where we spend 3 days talking about Geek stuff, mostly around Smartphones.

So how did my first day experience compare with when I got my iPhone? It's a little hard, as the iPhone was my first true love and so will always have a certain special place in my heart. But seriously, I found the iPhone to be a fun, pleasurable and easy experience. With the Droid, I felt like I was fighting it all the time. Even now after 3 months, I still don't find it as intuitive as the iPhone and I still have to think how to do something or where to find something. Maybe its just me, but I'm not one to give up.

Next up I'll be looking at managing your Contacts, something which really bamboozled me.

Legal disclaimer: TechnoRV does not represent Verizon, Apple or Motorola. All opinions in this and subsequent articles are my own and if you don't like them, well no one forced you to read my article. 

iPhone vs Android - Photos (Part 4)

I can't remember exactly when it happened, but it happened fairly quickly. I just stopped carrying my camera around. Perhaps it was a couple of years ago, it doesn't matter. But, what is important is that before that I always had my camera with me. It was just something I did. That's why I liked the small pocket size cameras with as good video as possible (I had a Sanyo which was a pistol grip, pocket size and shot HD quality when most people didn't even know what it meant).

There were a couple of things that spurred me to do this. First was the ease of sharing. No more copying photos over to the computer, organizing, editing and then uploading. One click of the button and my photos were shared with Facebook, PhotoBucket etc. Second was the fact that my phone had a built-in GPS which meant I could always see where my photo was taken - so many times before when we traveled I forgot where the photo was taken. Thirdly, it was just pure convenience. One less thing to carry. According to CNET, almost one third of all photos taken are with Smartphones, up 10% from the previous year, mostly at the expense of point-and-shoot cameras.

So what does this mean in the context of iPhone vs Android? For me it means that the way phone camera's quality, ease of use and management / sharing of photos is very important. So let's take each of these in turn.

Camera Quality

On paper, they both seem very similar. Both have an 8MP camera and shoot video at 1080p and 30 fps.   But a long time ago I learned that you can't judge a camera on paper and the same goes here. Let me share with you a photo that I took here in Goshen and you'll see what I mean.

Motorola MAX HD
iPhone5
It's hard to compare photo quality on a website since the browser distorts colors and the quality is reduced for loading times (click on each photo to download the original photo). So now we get personal as a lot of this is subjective. BUT, first of all, the Droid is widescreen, which I prefer. Secondly, the clarity seems better if you look at the clock face, but most importantly, the colors seem brighter and more vibrant. In fairness, this is done in software and can be compensated for by transferring your photos to a computer, but as I've already described, it's rare that I do that now.

Ease of Use

This is where it starts to get interesting. First of all, the iPhone5 allows quick access to your camera without having to unlock your phone. On the Droid, you have to first unlock your phone, go to the home screen if you're not already there and then go into your Camera.









Once the camera is loaded, the Droid does offer many more features such as Night Portrait and Sunset as well as prompting you to switch to HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode if needed. On the other hand, sometimes my phone says "Cannot initialize camera" and won't let me take any photos without re-booting which is REALLY annoying. Other times it decides it doesn't want to make the shutter noise or update the little photo with a picture of what it's taken. The iPhone5 is therefore much more reliable as a camera.

Photo Management

iPhone

The iPhone makes managing and sharing your photos very easy. If you have a Mac computer, you just connect your iPhone to the computer and it will bring up iPhoto to transfer, store, manage, edit and share your photos. iPhoto comes free on a Mac and works pretty well (easier to use than Picasa, but that's not a very high bar). If you have a PC, I understand that you just connect it and it mounts as a drive so you can use your program of choice to transfer the photos (or Microsoft's own if you want to live dangerously). If you don't have a computer, or just don't want the hassle of transferring your photos, you can enable iCloud (Settings / iCloud and then turn on Photo Stream. This will automatically download  all your photos with all your Apple devices (other iPhones, iPads or Macs running the latest OS). You can view these online although in my opinion, it is a little complicated and there are much better ways of doing it such as Facebook or Photobucket.

Android

The Motorola Razr Max has a microSD card on which you can store your photos, but you have to tell it to save them to that card (Camera App / Settings / Storage Location). I would recommend this for as number of reasons. First, if your camera has a melt-down, you can always pop out your card to get your photos and nothing is lost. Secondly, it makes it easy to expand your phones storage or put in a new card if you're on a trip and need more space. Thirdly, you can use the card to transfer the photos to your computer (cumbersome, but it works).

To transfer your photos physically to your computer, plug in your phone and it will mount as a drive and pull up your program of choice to transfer your files. A more elegant way is to turn on the Google+ photo share (Settings / Accounts / Google / Google+ / Instant Upload). The nice thing about this is that it will automatically upload your photos (at full resolution) to your Google+ photo account. You probably don't realize that you have one, but if you have an Android phone, trust me, you do. Any photos that get uploaded are PRIVATE. They CANNOT be seen by anyone unless you go in and share them. This makes it very easy to not only share your photos, but have them as a backup. In my opinion, this is a better solution than Apple's Photostream which can get confusing. Not that this will also work for videos, but can be data hungry so watch your plan!

The one big downside that I haven't mentioned is the speed of the camera. On my Droid, it is SO slow, especially compared to the iPhone5. In a quick experiment I was able to take 35 photos on the iPhone in 30 seconds vs 15 on my Droid. Roughly speaking, that's more than twice the speed. Not a biggie, but it can be important when trying to get the right photo for example with children or animals etc.

Summary

I'm in a quandry. I like my Droid's color balance, widescreen format, options (sunset etc), SD card, and Google+ integration, but I hate it's unreliability, speed and clumsiness. On the other hand, the iPhone is easier to use as a camera and faster, but lacks some of the Droid's features. Perhaps the Samsung Galaxy overcomes some of the Motorola's short comings. Perhaps I need a third phone? If you have a Samsung Galaxy, let me know what you think of it as a camera.

It's worth mentioning that Samsung has a phone / camera hybrid called the Samsung Galaxy Camera EK-GC100 which is like an Galaxy phone melded with a point-and-shoot camera. It has built-in connectivity via AT&T or WiFi and all the cool features of an Andoid phone including editing with apps and uploading to Facebook, Google+ etc. But then it's back to carrying a phone and a camera. Ahhhhhh!

Personal Update



There's an old Chinese saying (actually more of a curse) which says "May you live in interesting times". Just when life begins to settle down, it becomes "interesting" again. For the last 2 weeks of February and first 2 weeks in March, Tracey, Ally and I were in Mexico on a working vacation. Our friend has a house just outside Puerto Vallara and offered for us to stay there. It's a block from the beach and is wonderful. Since we were down there we decided to have some medical work done (see my article). Long story short, Tracey had a mammogram and it turns out that she has breast cancer. I must admit, it was unexpected as she's not even 50 yet and there was no lump. Following so close from the loss of our son Josh last year it tested all of our strength and then some.

The good news is that we caught it early (stage II) and it hasn't spread too far. If we hadn't gone to Mexico I really don't know what would have happened. So in a way, it was a blessing that we went to Mexico and found it (I'm sure our guardian angel Josh had something to do with that).

Tracey is now back with her family in the UK and is receiving excellent medical care. She's started chemo and is doing very well, keeping her spirits up, despite us being apart. So far it's been 1 month and 5 days that we've been apart, the longest time in 24 years. I plan to go out to be with her in August after the major rallies and we'll take things from there.

So for now it's Murphy and I traveling the US together. I must admit, the RV seems much larger! We're currently in Goshen getting ready for the Holiday Rambler rallies and then working our way to FMCA International and Escapade in Gillette. Driving and navigating on your own is a new experience!

I do have one small favor to ask. Since I will be on my own at most of our upcoming rallies, if you could be patient with me at the booth that would be great as I hate to keep people waiting, but you might have to wait a little longer than usual as everyone tends to come at once! Ally might come out to help and I'm trying to line up some other help, but we'll have to see how that goes.

In the meantime, please join me in wishing Tracey well. She's such a trouper and I'm so proud of her. She misses being here terribly and would much rather be traveling than stuck in one place, not to mention having to deal with what she's going through. You can always email tracey (same as mine with her first name) or message her using Facebook or Whatsapp.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

WiFi Boosters - A Case Study


We're staying at the Florida Grande Motor Coach Resort just outside Webster Florida. It's a very nice class-A only resort, but it doesn't have any in-park WiFi. It does have WiFi in its recreation room, but that's about 250 yards from where we're parked. I tried looking for it on my laptop and nothing. Not a peep. What's a TechnoGeek to do? Consider it a challenge of course!


The first thing to try was my range of external boosters. These are mounted on the back of my rig and I've been experimenting with different brands and configurations so this was ideal timing. Interestingly, none of them was able to see the rec-room signal which surprised me as their theoretical range is 0.5 to 1 mile. After investigation, the problem was two-fold.



First, I took a look from the roof of my RV. Instead of a clear line of sight over to the rec-room, there was a metal roofed building in the way. This is one of the biggest problems with WiFi - you need as clear a line-of-sight as possible. RV's and especially metal buildings kill the signal.


To solve that problem I decided to try our Desktop booster from the front of the RV as this had a clear line-of-sight to the rec-room. The good news is that I could now see the signal, but the signal strength is -60dBm (70%) with a link quality of 50 - 60%. The connection was intermittent at best and rated at only 1 Mb/s. It certainly wasn't usable. I knew that the Alpha could easily reach that distance, so what could the problem be? It turns out that the problem is not on the transmit side, but on the receive side. The rec-room only has a small home-style WiFi router. These are designed to cover a room or floor of a small house, but definitely not 250 yards of campground. What I needed was a way of boosting the receive side. I needed a bigger pair of ears!

Enter the new Yagi antenna that we've just finished testing. It's 16dBm which means that it is more than 10x more sensitive than the 5 dBm antenna that is standard on the desktop booster. After connecting the Yagi to the booster and lining it up with the rec-room I went back to my laptop. The connection was solid, the signal strength improved by 7 dBm (4x), the link quality by 20 - 30% and the speed increased to 6 - 9 Mb/s. That's nothing to write home about BUT, compared to not seeing a signal at all on my laptop, I was pretty jazzed. 

Now remember, the 6 - 9 Mb/s is the theoretical maximum speed that a WiFi link of this quality will support. WiFi 802.11g under "perfect circumstances" is 54 Mb/s. What you actually get depends not only on the link quality, but also on the load from other users as campground WiFi is a shared resource. It's like your water pressure dropping on a hot day if everyone starts watering their lawns. I ran a Speakeasy speed test and got 0.49 down and 0.24 up which while not great, was useable, and best of all, FREE!


The Yagi antenna can be mounted inside your rig like I did, or mounted on a pole outside (I actually mounted mine on an extendable RV wash/wax pole that Josh bought me). Of course, since by its very nature it is highly directional and needs to be pointed at the WiFi source, but it is a great "tool" to pull out when you need it. Best of all, it connects directly to the desktop booster so makes a great add-on. Visit the Yagi Antenna on our website for more details or give us a call / comment on the blog if you'd like to ask questions or get advice. Happy connecting!


Testing our WiFi Solutions - Case Study